Did the weather contribute to the downfall of the Roman Empire?

We have recently seen how Nature can become our enemy with a succession of adverse weather events affecting us globally. Now researchers at the University of Cambridge in England say that hot dry summers might have been one reason why Attila the Hun attacked Rome – in order to save his own people from starvation during droughts.

Archaeologist Dr Susanne Hakenbeck – working with lead researcher Professor Ulf Büntgen – says that the climate of the Eurasian Steppe between AD 420 and 450 was “capricious” and “harsh”, causing multiple droughts which forced the Huns to alternate “between farming in fixed locations and herding their animals to greener pastures”.

The Steppe consisted of expansive flat grasslands perfect as grazing lands and enabling tribes to move around and herd their animals. Today we view staying in a yurt as something as a novel luxury – but life in a yurt originated from the tribes living on the Eurasian Steppe.

The Steppe today (Image: Cambridge University)

The Eurasian Steppe extends from Hungary to China and covers approximately one-fifth of the earth. The Steppe – as it is sometimes known – stretches through Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Transnistria, Western Russia, Siberia. Kazakhstan, Xinjiang, Mongolia and Manchuria, with a major part being in Hungary, called the Pannonian Steppe.

The Huns were a tribal nomadic group who mainly occupied Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe from 4th to 6th century AD. Many historians are of the opinion that the Huns originated from Kazakhstan, however.

With researcher Dr Hakenbeck, Prof Büntgen from Cambridge University’s Department of Geography studied tree ring data, as well as data collected from skeletons of those living in the region at the time of the droughts.

“Tree ring data gives us an amazing opportunity to link climatic conditions to human activity on a year-by-year basis,” said Prof Büntgen.

“We found that periods of drought recorded in biochemical signals in tree-rings coincided with an intensification of raiding activity in the region.”

Dr Hakenbeck added that recent isotopic analysis of skeletons from the region – including those examined by Dr Hakenbeck – suggests that “Hunnic peoples responded to climate stress by migrating and by mixing agricultural and pastoral diets”.

Map showing the Hun Capital (Image: WorldHistory.org)

Hakenbach suggests in research published in the  Journal of Roman Archaeology that the years of drought led to starvation and forced the Huns to become “merciless raiders” in order to survive – adding that the most devastating Hun incursions occurred in AD 447, 451 and 452 – years in which “extremely dry” summers occurred.

“Climate-induced economic disruption may have required Attila and others of high rank to extract gold from the Roman provinces to keep war bands and maintain inter-elite loyalties,” Hakenbeck suggests.

“Former horse-riding animal herders appear to have become raiders.”

However, whereas previously it was thought that gold and wealth solely fuelled the raids by Huns on Rome, another reason might be the need to obtain food during the years of extreme drought.

In AD 451, the Huns invaded the Western Roman province of Gaul (now France) under Attila’s command – as well as northern Italy. They captured Milan – the capital of the Western Roman Empire – and demanded a huge sum of money from the Western Roman Empire to avert further attacks.

Roman Columns of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Milan (Image: Wikipedia)

“Attila also demanded a swathe of land ‘five days’ journey wide’ along the Danube,” says Hakenback – adding that this might have been in order to offer the raiders guaranteed fertile grazing land during the worst droughts.

“Climate alters what environments can provide – and this can lead people to make decisions that affect their economy, and their social and political organisation,” adds Hakenbeck.

“Such decisions are not straightforwardly rational, nor are their consequences necessarily successful in the long term.”

However, the forays of Attila and his brother Bleda played a key role in the downfall of the Roman Empire, which had become divided, leading to the Huns being able to take advantage of the internal instability the empire was facing.

Statue of Attila the Hun, Hungary (Image: A. Berger, Wikipedia CCL)

Attila’s reign ended in AD 453, after he was found dead after a drinking spree on the eve of his final wedding. He had choked to death after sustaining a nosebleed – demonstrating how Nature frequently comes out on top, despite our best efforts to mitigate its adverse effects on our lives.

The last Roman Emperor was Romulus Augustus – known as Augustulus – who ruled the Western Roman Empire from 31 October 475 until 4 September 476, when he was deposed by the barbarian and German tribal leader, Odoacer, who became the first king of Italy.

Coin showing Odoacer, first King of Italy
(Image: Wikipedia CCL)

You can read the full article at the website LiveScience.com and the original research at Cambridge University online.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s